As I listened to the group of students across the table, I wondered about how they did it? How did these students- from the south side of Chicago- overcome the obstacles that continually stand in the way for many of our kids who are all too often on the wrong side of the achievement gap? What happened that helped these kids academically achieve and change the trajectory of their lives? Wanting to hear more about their past, but not wanting to invade their privacy, I asked, “How many of you will be among the first in your family to go to college?” Five students raised their hands. I followed up, “How many of you went to preschool or Head Start?” All five hands remained in the air.
Reams of data point to the positive impact of early education on the lives of students who hail from tenuous circumstances, and the Chicago Longitudinal Study shows that every dollar invested in early education has a substantial return on investment. The data is important, but what is more important is the very real impact that early education has had on the lives of some of our most vulnerable students, including those kids from Chicago.
I am keenly aware of the difference that early education can make in a child’s life, because it made a world of difference in my own. As the son of a father who dropped out of the eighth grade in Oaxaca, Mexico, and of a mother who could only read at the 3rd grade level, I did not have the best odds at achieving academic success.
Other than an old family King James Bible, there were no books in my house. There were no puzzles, or activities to teach shapes, colors, or numbers. I, like many students in neighborhoods similar to my own, was at a disadvantaged starting place in the game of life. I, however, was fortunate in that I was enrolled in Head Start, an early education program that aims to improve education, health, nutrition and parent involvement for low-income children and their families. In Head Start, I was taught the foundations which better prepared me for the start of my educational journey. As opposed to entering kindergarten behind, I went in with knowledge and competencies that allowed me to participate in class and feel confident in my abilities. The Head Start program helped me have a fair shot at learning, and ultimately a fair shot at life.
As a teacher of high school students who have been removed from other institutions and who have been identified as potential dropouts, I often wonder about the educational journey of my kids. The vast majority of my students come to class with significant academic deficiencies. My school has been identified as a model for helping these students overcome barriers to academic success, but does so with a significant amount of resources to help these students with academic, physical, mental, and emotional issues. Being familiar with their backgrounds, I know that most of my kids started off far behind many of their peers at the traditional school sites. I cannot help but wonder what would have been if my students had been part of a quality, early education program that perhaps could have given them the head start they needed.
As we transition to more rigorous standards and assessments, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Achievement of these standards will help our kids compete in the flat world, but if we do not make a concerted effort to help all kids start out with the same basic competencies through high-caliber, early education programs, we may perpetuate the achievement gap we seek to eliminate. The five students that I met from Chicago transcended the achievement gap and overcame challenges, due to the support of family, teachers, strong-willed determination, and quite possibly, the impact of early education.
Marciano Gutierrez is a 2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, on loan from Alta Vista High School in Mountain View, Calif.